The election-night scene at San Salvador’s Presidente Hotel in March had all the trappings of an American campaign. The lobby was filled with party workers, election officials, international observers, camera crews, and security men. For the almost eight hundred foreign journalists in town, a high-tech press room had been set up, with computers, FAX machines, and telephone operators ready to place calls around the world. On television, political commentators using the latest in computerized graphics analyzed the meaning of the day’s exit polls for a country in which three out of every five families don’t have enough to eat.
At about eight o’clock, amid a sudden crush of people, Alfredo Cristiani, the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), arrived to declare his victory. Surrounded by reporters and bodyguards, he made his way through the lobby and out to a thatched space by the pool, where, alongside Roberto D’Aubuisson and other leading party officials, he took a seat behind a bank of microphones. It was a triumphant moment for ARENA. Founded only eight years ago, the party swept the presidency in a landslide, promising a sharp turn to the right for Salvadoran politics. Cristiani, a neat, balding man, seemed imperturbable, the only person not caught up in the excitement. Only once did he betray emotion. When asked how his victory would affect Washington’s policy toward El Salvador, he replied curtly, “You’ll have to ask Washington.”
Washington gave an answer of sorts a few minutes later, when the US election observers held their own press conference in a wing of the Presidente Hotel. The delegation included some prominent conservatives: Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Governor Bob Martinez of Florida; Representatives Robert Dornan of California and Bill McCollum of Florida; William Doherty of the AFLCIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development; Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates; and Peter Flaherty, president of the Conservative Campaign Fund. A few token liberals, including Democratic House Whip Tony Coelho, lent the delegation a blush of bipartisanship.
Although the polls had closed only a few hours earlier, the delegates had already prepared their statement. It was read by Senator McConnell, the chairman of the delegation. Despite widespread threats and intimidation, he stated, the voters of El Salvador had turned out “in huge numbers” to “participate in the democratic process.” Declaring the election to be “free and fair,” McConnell applauded the “courage and tenacity of the Salvadoran people” and praised the government for its “progress” on human rights.
When he had finished reading, the senator added a few comments of his own. “Those of us who believe in democracy ought to be particularly excited by what transpired today,” he said. “Our turnouts aren’t this good in the United States.” Other observers echoed his remarks. “Back home, we worry about rain on election day,” observed Governor Martinez. “Here, it rained bullets, and people still went to vote.” Representative McCullom praised the Salvadoran military for its noninterference in the electoral …